Tacos and Tamales
Experience Costa Rica—one mouthwatering bite at a time
Pura Vida Ville
2115 Buffalo Rd., Rochester
Shortly before the world shut down last year, I was fortunate enough to get one vacation in. Costa Rica is a lush and gorgeous country. The food and fruit are phenomenal. Sloths just hang out on trees at beaches. Yet, the most memorable thing from that trip was just how kind everyone we encountered was—even to a group of bumbling tourists. The phrase “¡Pura Vida!” was spoken and seen everywhere. Pura vida means pure or simple life. It symbolizes the approach to life in Costa Rican culture. Take it easy, be kind, enjoy life, and don’t sweat the small stuff—an idea we should all adopt!
One can imagine my excitement when I found out I could have Costa Rican food here in Rochester. Pura Vida Ville serves a mostly Mexican menu but features a variety of Costa Rican specials. They are located in a nondescript plaza next to a UPS store. Pura Vida Ville is a fast service–style, no frills eatery with a few tables for dining in.The focus is all on the food. So, what does one order to get acquainted with Costa Rican food? Glad you asked!
Tamales have become popular in recent times. Costa Rican tamales are different from the more well-known Mexican style tamales in that they are steamed in banana leaves instead of corn husks. In addition, Costa Rican tamales tend to be complete meals by themselves. At Pura Vida Ville, the owner, Tatiana Warren, was persuaded to make tamales by a homesick friend. After some experimentation, Warren has nailed it. Seasoned chunks of pork are slowly stewed with vegetables and rice till the pork is fork tender. The tamale is assembled by laying out a banana leaf, adding a layer of cornmeal that has been flavored with the magical braising liquid from the pork, and topped with a generous scoop of the stewed pork. Then the banana leaf is folded up and the entire tamale is steamed. It is served with a piquant dipping sauce made of Salsa Lizano and some secret spices. (Quick background on Salsa Lizano: It is a Costa Rican condiment similar to Worcestershire sauce, an umami bomb that elevates the overall taste of the dish.) The resulting tamale features a surprisingly light cornmeal bite thanks to the braising liquid in it. When you taste it, you will understand why these sell out fast. And when they do sell out, the restaurant is understandably not able to make more immediately. I recommend calling ahead to make sure you will not be disappointed.
Gallo pinto is a staple dish in Costa Rican cuisine. The name translates to “spotted rooster” (due to the appearance of the beans against the white rice). There is no meat in this dish. Black beans and rice are cooked together with aromatics and spices to produce a fragrant meal. It is hearty, comforting, and mild while being flavourful. While many may consider rice and beans a “side dish,” gallo pinto does not fall into that category. It is well seasoned and stands on its own. But yes, it can also be a delicious backdrop to the various meats at Pura Vida. Sometimes, Pura Vida Ville runs a special where Gallo pinto is served with deliciously ripe plantains, salad, and meat of your choice. Allow me to save you some analysis paralysis—you will want the shredded beef. My friend stated that the carnitas were juicy and delicious. However, the shredded beef is remarkable. I am not privy to the recipe, but I could taste the caramelized and slightly sweet notes of the onions and peppers that (probably) cooked down with the beef. Shredded beef can often be stringy and dry. Not this one. It’s melt-in-your-mouth tender. This same shredded beef is used in the restaurant’s best-selling birria tacos. Yes, the birria tacos that seem to be at every corner in Rochester are also available at Pura Vida Ville. I was too full to try them on my past visits, but they are on my list. Ah, the things I must do in the name of research!
At the restaurant there is a hot case featuring empanadas and churros. These empanadas are more than the ground beef one we have become accustomed to. While the daily selection varies, I got to try a beef, plantain, and rice empanada. The exterior was hot and crisp. The inside was the perfect level of salty. The accompanying sauces (I tried salsa roja and salsa verde) added a fresh and slightly spicy note to each bite. You can also get the house-made habanero or serrano sauces. Yes, of course, I got both. If you love your food very spicy, get the habanero sauce. It is tasty and spicy—if you are into hot sauces, you know how rare that combination is. The serrano sauce is much less spicy but still adds a good tinge of heat. Other empanadas you may encounter—chorizo, chicken, chili and cheese, perhaps even pumpkin. I sincerely doubt one could be unhappy with any empanada from here.
What is Pura Vida without a sweet end? In addition to churros that I did not have stomach room to try, there are Costa Rican pastries stuffed with a variety of fruit fillings. The generous powdered sugar on top is an excellent balance to the slightly tart guava pastry I had. Someday, I will plan ahead and pair this pastry with a cup of coffee—featuring beans from Costa Rica, of course. By the way, you can purchase certain Costa Rican specialty foods here, including coffee beans.
I like to keep the focus on food in my column, but I must mention that when I met the owner, Warren, she was very much the embodiment of the Pura Vida energy. She has worked at Mexican restaurants around town, and the Mexican food here is also quite good. However, I must insist you try the Costa Rican specials—be it the gallo pinto, a tamale, or just the pastry that will leave powdered sugar all over your shirt. Don’t worry about the sugar on your shirt or the mess the juicy tamale may make. Life is too precious to sweat the small stuff. ¡Pura Vida!